MVRDV′s recent library design references a lot of things – barns, mountains, ideas of disposability – none of them usually associated with a stereotypic dusty repository of books. Chris Luth ponders their design process and motives.
Question: How to design a contemporary library on the market square of Spijkenisse, an ancient town of farmers and fishermen, right across from the town's medieval church?
This question does not seem to have been MVRDV’s main concern in designing what they called the “Book Mountain.”
Yet if the architects were wondering how to create an iconic building with a typological twist, they have succeeded remarkably well. The library was elevated to the top of a ziggurat of stacked secondary programs. After learning that the daily wear and tear of books results in an average life span of only four years – less than the detrimental effect that direct sunlight would allow for – the library was also boldly covered with a large glass roof.
The result is a spectacular public interior that overlooks, and can be seen from, the market square. It “advertises its books,” as the architects say. And its barn-shaped roof supposedly refers to the town’s agricultural past.
But why design a glass barn opposite the town’s medieval church? Why make such an important public building that is devoted to reading, refer to the normally peripherally-located storage of crops and housing of livestock?
It appears that the architects were not convinced of this comparison either and simply saw it as an easily identifiable symbol with immediate iconic appeal. Tellingly, they called it the Book Mountain, not the Book Barn.
More importantly, when entering the library, nothing reminds one of the craftsmanship and sensual qualities of pre-industrial production: the associated rich architectural detail, the soft muted light, and the material tactility with its own smells and sounds, are missing. Indeed, nothing invites one to quietly take up a book, gently feel its weight, carefully turn over the cover, let one’s hand feel the paper’s texture and read the first pages in a private corner.
There are no private corners. Instead, you are welcomed by thick anthracite bookshelves and accompanying furniture made of recycled plastic, and by brick-printed elevator doors.
A cynic might argue that this de-contextualized detailing and superficial iconic reference actually fits not only the disposable books, but also the generic local context that Spijkenisse was transformed into after becoming a New Town in the 1960s. The demolition of the previous library in favor of more shops only attests to this logic.
MVRDV won this library competition for “disposable” books in 2003. If the competition had been held only a decade later, books might have been dispensed with altogether.
Last January, in the Texan city of San Antonio, the United States’ first completely digital, bookless library was announced. When one of the project organizers, a county judge, was asked what it would look like, he referred to another icon, also devoid of its agricultural roots, when stating: “Go into an Apple store.”
– Chris Luth, Rotterdam